• July 25, 2024

The H160 helicopter from Airbus provides valuable assistance to pilots, aiding them in mitigating errors and enhancing safety measures.

In situations where pilots may experience disorientation, a gentle tap on the yoke triggers an automatic adjustment that brings the helicopter back to a stable and controlled position.

In most helicopters, undergoing an upside-down maneuver can be quite unsettling, as it typically signals an impending crash. However, in the new Airbus Helicopters H160, this becomes an uneventful occurrence. It involves a seamless upward pitch, followed by a controlled transition onto the helicopter’s back. There are no jarring vibrations, no overwhelming g-forces, and no sudden plummet. The inversion simply occurs, levels off, and then the helicopter returns to its normal position.

This remarkable smoothness owes much to the expertise of the pilot at the controls, namely Airbus experimental test pilot Olivier Gensse. Yet, the sense of ease with which he executed the maneuver also arises from the inherent stability of the H160—a machine crafted to safeguard pilots from an array of life-threatening situations.

 

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The level of smoothness in this helicopter is so exceptional that Gensse didn’t even require the assistance of the autopilot system, which is intended to aid pilots who haven’t spent years contributing to the development and testing of this aircraft, in recovering from challenging situations. In scenarios such as experiencing disorientation amidst a storm or needing to avoid another aircraft or a power line with abrupt movements, a simple double-tap of a button on the yoke swiftly restores the helicopter to a stable and controlled position, allowing pilots to regain their bearings. This feature, known as the “automatic recovery mode,” has existed in simpler forms in other Airbus helicopters, but it has reached its highest level of advancement and capability in this model.

Airbus has designed the H160, set to be introduced into service next year, to cater to a wide range of purposes, including executive travel, oil-rig landings, and emergency services. It can accommodate up to 12 passengers, cover distances of up to 530 miles on a full tank, and achieve a top speed of 177 mph. Moreover, it consumes 15 percent less fuel compared to aircraft equipped with previous-generation engines, and the pricing falls within the double-digit million range. While this positions it competitively among other helicopters in its medium-duty class, the European aviation giant anticipates that pilots and passengers alike will value its innovative design.

 

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During a demonstration flight aimed at potential buyers, the pitch-over maneuver took place above the picturesque fields of western New Jersey. However, its purpose wasn’t to showcase how pilots would typically operate the H160 but rather to highlight the exceptional “margins” they possess when confronted with unexpected situations in the air. Gensse emphasizes the significance of having these margins, which provide pilots with the ability to navigate out of trouble, instilling a sense of comfort as they can utilize the aircraft to its utmost potential.

Gensse further exhibited the H160’s composure in emergency scenarios involving excessive inputs, employing another captivating yet mildly unsettling maneuver. He swiftly escalated and then promptly decreased the throttle, inducing a rapid but smooth response from the dual 1,300-horsepower Safran Arrano turboshaft engines. As a result, we briefly experienced a controlled free fall, as the aircraft promptly interpreted the pilot’s inputs and executed a response that remained controlled and composed—a remarkable feat, considering that other helicopters may easily lose control when subjected to such erratic inputs.

 

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“You can effortlessly navigate through critical situations,” remarks Gensse, emphasizing that Airbus’s most advanced autopilot system for helicopters greatly assists pilots by managing various aspects related to power and flight control systems. The incorporation of electronic displays in the “glass cockpit” replaces traditional analog dials, allowing for prioritization of crucial information in real-time. Additionally, the high-visibility canopy, with minimal obstructions, enhances situational awareness and eliminates the sense of confinement often associated with conventional cockpits, as explained by Gensse.

This exemplifies Airbus’s shift from an aircraft-centric approach, driven solely by functional requirements, to a more pilot- and passenger-centric perspective. From the pilot’s standpoint, the helicopter minimizes the amount of training needed to operate it safely. Gensse elucidates, “It’s a new concept of envisioning flight. Previously, we had a helicopter and a pilot, requiring extensive training to bring them together. Thus, a high level of training was necessary to overcome critical situations. However, now we strive to create an aircraft that is incredibly user-friendly. If it’s easy to operate, it will be safer.”

This approach aims to reduce the pilot’s workload, exemplified by the double-click button on the yoke for stabilizing the aircraft and the constant presence of the autopilot system, which allows pilots to quickly shift their attention while the system maintains the current direction, altitude, speed, and other parameters. The advanced autopilot, a significant advancement from previous versions, also assists in modulating hovers and landings, including facilitating descents in challenging brownout or whiteout conditions where visibility drops to zero.

 

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Airbus has placed significant emphasis on enhancing the passenger experience within the H160, even though this aspect is not always prioritized in aircraft primarily designed for utilitarian purposes. Gensse asserts that it’s not solely about catering to VIPs but also about ensuring the comfort of everyone on board, as it directly contributes to safety. The scimitar shape of the main rotor plays a pivotal role in reducing generated noise, with each blade tip skillfully slicing through the vortexes left behind by the preceding blade. Airbus claims that this design diminishes the noise underneath the helicopter by 50 percent, which is excellent news for both passengers inside and individuals on the ground.

Another notable feature is the enclosed tail rotor, known as the rear fenestron, positioned at a 10-degree angle towards the ground. Besides aiding lift, it effectively counteracts the helicopter’s tendency to rotate beneath the main rotor disk. While originally introduced in military aircraft, this marks its first appearance in a civilian helicopter. Additionally, the stabilizer on the tail boom adopts a stacked “biplane” configuration instead of single panels. This configuration significantly improves stability at low speeds by reducing the surface area affected by the downward airflow from the main rotor, without compromising aerodynamics during forward flight.

If this impressive list of innovations isn’t sufficient to captivate a potential customer, a brief flight with Gensse at the controls is likely to seal the deal.

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